Empathy Cares While Sympathy Kills

On A Sad Note

During the first month of my freshman year in college, my mom called and I could tell immediately in her voice that something was wrong. She never talked in such long, drawn out sighs, and most of the time was far too eager to discuss recent updates in my new college life. I asked what was wrong, but she couldn’t find the words to tell me. After what seemed like an hour, she finally whispered, “Grandma has cancer.”

After her quiet words dawned on me, I stared at my computer screen not knowing what to think or say. My first reaction, of course, was to start crying. How could my perfect, exciting new college life turn upside down within seconds? As soon as my mom heard me crying, that of course had a domino effect and she burst into tears as well. Our daily phone call which usually consisted of my mom pestering me with questions on details of my new life quickly turned into a crying fest over the telephone.

The rest of the day was a complete fog. I can’t tell you what classes I had that day or who I talked to. There was minimal information on the severity of my grandma’s cancer, but knowing she had cancer was enough to send me into a frenzy. I couldn’t help but to think of the worst-case scenario and continue to replay it in my head.

Later that night, I had managed to compose myself at least a tiny bit to go to dinner with my friends at the C4C. As I was walking to meet them, I remember thinking to myself, “Just act normal, they don’t have to know. Everything is fine.” Somehow those silly thoughts helped me pull it together for the hour long dinner, so I started to head back to my dorm. But then sudden1441820707479ly I felt someone tap my shoulder and turned to see that it was my best friend, Sarah, staring at me in confusion.

When I Needed My Friends the Most

I can’t explain what happened, I think I was just caught off-guard, but somehow those tears I had been suppressing seemed to burst right back to the surface. She didn’t have to say anything, because I knew she was there for me as soon as she hugged me. Similar to Brene Brown’s comments on how a connection is what makes something better, not a response, I knew right away that Sarah would always be there for me even if I thought I could handle it on my own. When I was finally able to form mumbled words again, I told Sarah that my grandma had cancer.

Sarah looked at me with comforting eyes, and explained that she had a similar situation with her grandpa about a year before. She asked if I wanted to get ice cream and go for a walk, and that was exactly what I needed. According to an article by Lynne Sipiora, empathy is defined as connecting with the feelings you are witnessing. You don’t have to have the exact experiences, but you do have to understand what the other person is feeling. Sarah may not have had the exact same experiences, but she sure made me feel much better by acknowledging that we were faced with similar situations.

What I Would Change

Of course, if I could change anything, it would be that my grandma was never diagnosed with cancer. However, since that’s not how life works, I would change my initial response to the heartbreaking news. Yes, it was incredibly difficult to hear and something I wish no one would ever have to handle. However, it is also crucial to accept the fact that things will happen in life that I don’t want to happen. That day taught me to try my best to not let negativity win, because then I am giving up on myself. Ultimately, sympathy becomes a crutch that one holds on to for ease and comfort, as studied in the article, 9 Toxic Behaviors That Drive People Away,” which I do not want to become reliant upon.


3 thoughts on “Empathy Cares While Sympathy Kills

  1. Suppressing your emotions in front of your peers during a tough time like yours is a very familiar situation that I had to go through. It’s good that you had some comfort from friends.

  2. Heidi, it’s very tough learning bad news about a loved one. It speaks volumes about Sarah that she was there for you before you even delivered the news about your grandma.I’m glad to hear you had someone there for you during that tough time.

  3. Hi Heidi,

    That is very difficult news to hear, especially when you are in such a new situation starting out college. You are very lucky to have had a friend that understood what you were going through and confronted you to make sure you were doing ok.

    I enjoyed your section on what you would change in particular because it is the difficult situations in life that teach us things that we can bring with us moving forward. It is hard to not let negativity to win and I am glad you had such an awesome friend by your side.

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